Knowing our Limits
A group of five feminists, including novelist Naomi Ragen, has petitioned BaGaTz against the Mehadrin lines maintained by two publicly-subsidized bus companies: Egged and Dan. Petitioners do not demand the immediate cessation of Mehadrin service, but rather that the Court order the Transport Ministry to conduct a study of the necessity of separate seating bus lines and require Mehadrin buses to be clearly labeled.
At the hearing before BaGaTz, a good deal of attention is likely to focus on an incident that took place on the number 2 bus between Har Nof and the Kotel last November 24. In a widely circulated Email, Mrs. Miriam Shear, an Orthodox grandmother from Toronto described an alleged attack on her that day. According to her email, she rode the number 2 bus to the neitz minyan at the Kotel daily over a period of five weeks that she was visiting in Jerusalem. Though that particular bus line is not a Mehadrin line, the majority of passengers on the line are chareidi, and she was asked on a number of occasions to move to a seat on the back of the bus. In each case, she refused.
According to the Email, on the morning in question, a male passenger told Mrs. Shear that he wanted to sit in her seat and asked her to move to the back of the bus. She noted that there were two open seats in front of her and another across the aisle, and again refused. At that point the man spit at the middle-aged grandmother, and she reciprocated in kind. That led to a knockdown brawl, in which Mrs. Shear’s hair-covering fell off and was thrown out of her reach, she was kicked in the face, and she was surrounded and jostled by four men, including the original assailant. (I was able to confirm from Mrs. Shear’s host in Har Nof that she returned home hysterical from this encounter and with a badly swollen face.)
Predictably, this particular Email began spread like wildfire through cyberspace. Mrs. Shear was sought out for feature stories and interviews by some of the world’s largest TV and print media, most of which, to her credit, she refused. Equally predictably, a Reform leader penned an op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post in which he compared Mrs. Shear to Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama helped spark the American civil rights movement. For good measure, he also compared chareidim to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that comparison has been picked up and repeated ad nauseum.
If BaGaTz eventually bans Mehadrin public buses, those who were so insistent that Mrs. Shear vacate her seat will have made a significant contribution to the final decision. Certainly they have already helped make Torah Judaism appear as something ugly and fanatical in the eyes of hundreds of thousands around the world.
It is unlikely, however, that those involved in the bus incident will ever know of their “achievements.” But what concerns me more is the fear that even if they knew of them that they would have no regrets. There is, unfortunately, a small, but not negligible, segment of our community for whom the image of Torah Judaism in the larger world is a matter of utter indifference. All that matters, in any given situation, is what they perceive as the immediate religious imperative. Concern with the spiritual state of their fellow Jews is not even on the radar screen.
No doubt among my readers there are those who will point the finger of blame at Mrs. Shear: Why couldn’t she have moved to the back of the bus? Why did she have to distribute her Email so widely, knowing that it would generate great attention? And perhaps they are right.
But to focus only on her actions is to miss the point. There is a growing tendency in our community to attempt to impose our halachic standards, even chumrot, whenever we have a momentary majority, such as on the early morning bus to the Kotel. Even leaving aside the consequences of such a strategy on the attitude of traditional and secular Jews towards the chareidi community and Torah itself, I fear it is a dangerous approach.
Democracy may not be the Torah’s ideal form of government, but in recent history it has generally proven to be the best protector of the rights of Jews and of our ability to flourish as Torah Jews. Therefore Torah Jews have an interest in playing by the rules of a democratic society. If we want the majority of Israeli society to respect the rights of the chareidi minority, then we have to also respect the rights of the majority.
To argue that the rules of the game followed by Torah Jews in America do not apply to the chareidi community in Israel is, in my mind, a perverse form of Zionism.
Adopting violence as a tool would be a disastrous mistake, even from the most narrow and short-range perspective. As Yossi Sarid and other secular politicians have been only too happy to remind us over the years, at the end of the day, the secular public is much larger and has lots more guns.
Separate seating on buses may be a very positive thing. And if it is important enough to the chareidi community, then the community will support our own separate bus lines (though hopefully not by throwing stones at competing public lines, as has happened in Ramat Beit Shemesh).
But separate seating is not the only Torah value at stake. Yereim v’shleimim in New York regularly ride the New York City subways, on which the crowding is far greater than anything experienced on Egged buses in Jerusalem. And the late posek hador, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, long-ago ruled that it is permitted to ride New York City subways (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer 2:14).
As in so many cases, if we don’t keep values in perspective, we risk losing much more, including the command to make Torah beloved through our actions. The pending BaGaTz is but one example.
Published in Mishpacha